The veep search and McCain's base problem

Put aside whatever you think about the Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore HuffPost reporter: Biden's VP shortlist doesn't suggest progressive economic policies Jill Biden says she plans to continue teaching if she becomes first lady MORE vs. Sarah Palin vice presidential match-up.

The way in which Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy payroll tax cut opponents may want to reconsider Michelle Obama, Sanders, Kasich to be featured on first night of Democratic convention: report Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' MORE and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE went about selecting their running mates says a lot about each man and his relationship with his party's base.

The bottom line: Whatever the conflicts between Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton labels Trump coronavirus executive actions a 'stunt' What Trump got wrong by pushing coal Trump is fighting the wrong war MORE's dead-end supporters, the rift inside the Democratic Party created by their battle is not as deep as the fault lines among Republicans created by John McCain all by himself.

ADVERTISEMENT

Obama's search created a guessing game. After it became clear he would not choose Clinton, Democrats wondered whether it would be Candidate A, B or C. Some people thought Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) was better than Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), or that Virginia Gov. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Ex-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets USAID appointee alleges 'rampant anti-Christian sentiment' at agency MORE was better than Kansas Gov. Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mike Roman says 3M on track to deliver 2 billion respirators globally and 1 billion in US by end of year; US, Pfizer agree to 100M doses of COVID-19 vaccine that will be free to Americans The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former HHS Secretary Sebelius gives Trump administration a D in handling pandemic; Oxford, AstraZeneca report positive dual immunity results from early vaccine trial Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Kathleen Sebelius MORE, or vice-versa. But no one threatened that one choice or the other would bring ruin to the Democratic Party.

McCain's search created a much more fundamental problem. After he told The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes that he would consider a pro-choice running mate, a significant part of the Republican base saw its longtime distrust of McCain confirmed anew.

"What is this about picking a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican, particularly pro-choice?" asked Rush Limbaugh on Aug. 19. "If they do that, if the McCain camp does that, they will have effectively destroyed the Republican Party and pushed the conservative movement into the bleachers."

In a radio interview with McCain the next day, Laura Ingraham told McCain, "from the conservative perspective, we are literally imploring you to not turn your back on your great pro-life record over decades."

The conservative anxiety was made more intense because many members of the base had been heartened by McCain's performance at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Summit. His pro-life answers were clear and concise, a sharp contrast to Obama's "above my pay grade" waffling.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was just what the pro-life base wanted to hear — and then news about the running-mate search poured cold water on their enthusiasm and renewed all their old issues with McCain.

As that was going on, I called Katon Dawson, who is chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina.

Sure, McCain is going to win South Carolina — no questions about that — but Dawson was deeply worried that a pro-choice running mate would kill the fervor that spurs volunteers to go door to door, to make phone calls, to work on get-out-the-vote efforts in November.

"I would encourage the McCain camp to be aware of who we're going to have working in the vineyards," Dawson told me. "I understand it's probably sexy to look at other alternatives and see that they bring to the table, but … you've got to have the volunteers, and the vice presidential pick will be crucial."

In the end, McCain veered away from a pro-choice pick. But his vice presidential search revealed that he still has serious problems with his base — not a good position going into the fall campaign.